Agonistic Failures – Following Policy Conflicts in Berlin’s Urban Cultural Politics

Agonistic Failures – Following Policy Conflicts in Berlin’s Urban Cultural Politics


Written by:

Friederike Landau

First Published:

09 Sep 2020, 2:25 am


Agonistic Failures – Following Policy Conflicts in Berlin’s Urban Cultural Politics



Berlin’s artists mobilise for new cultural policy

When I first moved to Berlin eight years ago, in 2012, I knew that arts and culture were one of the most exciting things the city had to offer. But I was surprised how upset many of the artists, curators and gallerists, who make this scene so vibrant, were about the working and funding conditions for the so-called independent scene.


Funding disparity between independent culture and established institutions

I learned that there were huge disparities between public funding for independent or artist-run spaces and individual artists on the one hand, and established cultural institutions such as museums, collections, theatres and operas on the other.


Collectivisation of independent artists

Apart from the partially tense atmosphere, I seemed to have arrived at particular moment in time – out of the shared sentiment of discontent, a new body of artists and arts associations was emerging – calling themselves Koalition der Freien Szene Coalition of the Independent Scene. The group was organising protest marches in front of well-established institutions and actively campaigning on social media, bringing attention to the precarious working conditions of independent artists in the city. Their most memorable request was that income of the new tourist City Tax should be used to support local and independent cultural producers, projects and spaces.


Artist and administrators at one table

Being surrounded by this ambiance of departure and a potentially new era of cultural politics for Berlin, I wanted to understand the Koalition’s ideas about how to change the local cultural funding mechanisms.

I was struck that, while the group was consistently expressing discontent with the status quo, they were also involved in suggesting, developing and commenting on new cultural policies underway. In other words, the Koalition insisted on differences they had with the local cultural administration, but was also invested in pushing things to change.


Conflict is productive

In light of ongoing quarrels between artist advocates and cultural administrators, the purpose of my paper is to understand collaborative policy-making in the urban cultural context through a lens of conflict rather than consensus. Moreover, my paper aims to create a new understanding of conflict in processes to design new urban cultural policies.


Understanding collaboration by studying difference

I suggest considering conflict not as hindrance or nuisance to get rid of or to sweep under the rug, but as crucial driver for political innovation and collaboration amongst very different people in political debates. With this novel approach of conflict as tissue of political urban change, I push urban scholars and activists to listen to the necessarily different sides of seemingly one story. I retrace how Koalition activists and cultural policymakers assessed what constituted a success and failure differently during the process of developing a new funding instrument for artists.


Any success is permeated by failure

To contribute to a conflict-attuned theory of urban politics and collaborative governance, I show that even successful policies are permeated by conflict, and are always to some degree failing.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.